Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday Poem: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens

This poem was sent in by Tim, who writes that Stevens "was an insurance salesman in Hartford, which makes it even better." To send in your favorite poem, e-mail:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Festival Recap

It was a long day at the National Book Festival on Saturday. Despite being marred by rain, it was still very crowded, and there were some great talks.

My two favorite talks were by Mark Kurlansky and Junot Diaz. Kurlansky was there to talk about The Food of a Younger Land, which compiles pieces written as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program. The Project sent a bunch of writers out to chronicle the way Americans were eating in the 1940s, but due to the war, the writings were never published. I had wanted to read this book already, but listening to Kurlansky discuss it made me want to bump it to the top of my to-read list.

Junot Diaz, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, is the kind of cool friend I want to have. I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about six months ago and loved it, so it was great to hear him about talk about it. He also talked about breaking free of the expectations that others place upon us ("adulthood does not mean coming of age, but putting aside alien dreams and pursuing our own") and how he reconciled the expectations that came with his Dominican identity with what he wanted to do with his life.

Some of the participants in the project are above: Scieszka at left, Stephen Kellogg in the middle, then Nikki Grimes and DiCamillo.

Another highlight was the kickoff of the Exquisite Corpse Adventure, a project undertaken by a group of notable children's authors (Jon Scieszka, Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Gregory Maguire, Daniel Handler, and a lot more) and illustrators, in which they each write or illustrate a section of the story. A new part of the story is available every two weeks on, and you can see Scieszka's part up there now. Each author described his or her portion of the story, and when Kellogg got up to draw his character, who he said is "so large, so terrifying, I hesitate to describe him!" Scieszka shouted out "it's Dick Cheney!"

I also sat in on Annette Gordon-Reed's talk, Sharon Creech's reading and DiCamillo's individual reading.

This was my third year attending (I don't know why I didn't go the first year I lived in the D.C. area), and each year is better. While I wish that people would leave the strollers and puppies at home, and that tents weren't sometimes so crowded you can't even see the author, it's far and away one of my favorite D.C. events, and the lineup is always so impressive.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Oxford American's Southern Literature Issue

When I saw that the most recent issue of Oxford American was on Southern literature, I ran right out to get it. I'm woefully deficient in Southern lit, and since a topic you don't know much about can be overwhelming, I knew they would have suggestions for how to approach something so vast. Besides including numerous essays dedicated to the topic, Oxford American polled Southern writers, editors and publishers to compile lists of the top 10 fiction works, the top 5 non-fiction books, and a list of underrated books that have come out of the South.

Of the top rated fiction books, I've read two — To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. The former I read in ninth grade and the latter in sixth grade, which means it's been awhile since I picked up something from this list. (I very recently read The Member of the Wedding, which I loved, so I guess it hasn't been that long since I've read something that came out of the region.)

William Faulkner got three books in the top 10, including Absalom, Absalom!, which came in first in the poll. Faulkner tops the list of authors that I am embarrassed I haven't read (Toni Morrison is also on that list), and reading about why he's so brilliant encouraged me to pull my copy of Light in August off my shelf, where it's been languishing unread since my 23rd birthday. I'm at page 50, and love it so far.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men gets the nod for top non-fiction work, and it's a book I've been wanting to pick up ever since I found out that my favorite artist William Christenberry garnered inspiration from it for his own work. There's also a handful of essays about writers I'm deficient in (Thomas Wolfe), an essay about teaching Faulkner, and a piece (which I can completely relate to) about the concept of "notwriting" (wherein a writer spends time actively not writing in pursuit of "inspiration").

While the idea of rankings is always tricky, since books inevitably get left off and everyone has their own opinion where a book belongs, there's value to doing something like this — people start talking and debate the merits of one book over another, hidden treasures get unearthed and new reader/writer relationships begin, and people like me get driven into the arms of writers like Faulkner. I'd love to see some sort of similar treatment for Western writers and Midwestern writers. I think I've got a lock on what could be termed "Northeast Literature," but I'm deficient in every other region of the country.

Friday, September 25, 2009

In the Attic with Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni, the former New York Times restaurant critic, is the author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, a wonderful and witty account of his lifelong struggle with his weight. He will be talking about his book with Times columnist Maureen Dowd at Politics and Prose in D.C. on September 29 at 7 p.m. Bruni and I talked last week for an article I wrote on him for the Washington Blade. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What made you decide to put your story down in a book?

It sounds so simple, but I thought I had a story to tell. When I was offered the job of restaurant critic, there was a span of time when I was reflecting on how ironic it was to feel like I could do it. I remember thinking that if my wager is correct and being a restaurant critic doesn’t send me back to a really bad place in terms of bad eating an weight gain, then I should think about at some point writing this story.

I had read many food memoirs on the romance of eating, and I felt there was unmined territory in talking about overeating, which is a big part of a lot of people's lives. In my first year on the job, I would go out to eat with food writers and people connected to food as a profession in the restaurant industry, and people who lived foodie lives were among the most watchful, disciplined, careful eaters. They knew that being around food all the time, if they left themselves go, they would let themselves go. All of us write in such exultant and celebratory ways about eating, restaurants and food, and we coax people to come into restaurants. You have to be disciplined if you want to enjoy food without being undone by it, and I thought that was the book for me to write.

With the Internet making anonymous critiquing harder, and so many bloggers writing about restaurants, what do you think the future of restaurant criticism is?

The real danger to the future of conventional restaurant criticism is an economic danger. Restaurant criticism done the best way, by visiting a restaurant repeatedly, and trying to make a thorough survey of a menu is expensive. This is true for periodicals of any kind, print, online, whatever, to fund a restaurant critic's beat. The future is tied up in how institutions will be able to afford restaurant criticism in the way it should be done.

A lot of stuff on the Internet that is kind of expanding the universe of restaurant criticism isn't really restaurant criticism per se. I'm talking about user generated content on Citysearch or Yelp. You really have no idea who is rendering an opinion or what it's based on. It could be the shilling of a relative of the chef, or your don't know it you're reading someone who got a free comped meal, or you don't know if the person raving about a restaurant had two dishes or ten, or if they went one time or three.

People always ask food writers how they get to do what they do, and how it must be a dream job. Do you think it is?

Yeah, I think absolutely dream job but when you use that phrase for it, it includes the word 'job.' As soon as you make going out to eat a matter of obligation, as opposed to an option, it does take on aspects of being a job. You aren't going out to eat in a purely hedonistic pleasure driven way, you're making a scientific survey. Among those jobs we do, having your job be to go out and eat, sit in restaurants, which are often just wonderful places to be, bring along loved ones and friends to your table, among those things one must do in the course of a job, having to go out to eat is a pleasant one.

You talk in the book about how you've never been much of a cook. Have you been able to improve at all?

I'm just kind of making that effort now. I've never been much of a cook, and in the last five and a half years I haven't improved because I haven't had the occasion to cook. I've been eating out seven nights a week, and if it wasn't seven nights, it was six nights, and on the off night I didn't want dinner to be a long thing that involved lots of cooking, but a quick thing. I have a great appreciation for what makes great food than I did five and a half years ago, and I'm improved over time with exposure to more and more great food.

There are a lot of cities that have great food reputations. What are some off the beaten path cities that you've enjoyed eating in?

I keep wishing I could spend more time in Austin. There's really good, casual Tex Mex, and a couple restaurants that don't get an enormous amount of attention. One is called Hudson's on the Bend, and they serve an array of exotic game, and the other is Fonda San Miguel, which does Mexican food at a level it's not usually done at. They go way beyond guacamole.

You've written about so many different topics for newspapers. Is there one in particular that you find most fulfilling?

It's the variety itself I really like. My little brother has teased me that I don't have a career, I have attention deficient disorder. Journalistically that's correct, and to me the great opportunity and joy of journalism is being able to get into and ping between so many different worlds. I'm lucky enough to be a quick enough study and quick enough writer that I've been able to do that. I think if I had to write about one topic, it would be difficult for me.

So you're going to be writing for the Times magazine next? What are some topics you'd like to cover?

I'm going to be a committed dilettante at the magazine. The job enables me to cover the things I've been interested in over a long span of time — culture, politics, and food, based on what story presents itself at a given time.

Photo credit: Soo-Jeong Kang

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the Attic with Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks is the best-selling author of books like The Notebook and A Walk to Remember. His new book, The Last Song, was released September 8, and a film version of the book hits screens in January. He will be in D.C. this weekend for the National Book Festival.

You haven't participated in the National Book Festival before. What are you looking forward to?

It's always nice to meet and talk with the readers who enjoy my work and tell those who are interested and show up to my talk a little bit about what I do and who I am. And honoring reading and literacy in general is always a wonderful thing.

What was the inspiration for your new novel, The Last Song?

Always when I sit down to write a novel, I try to write something different from anything readers have read from me before. There are many ways to do that — structure, setting, or one of the easiest is the ages of the characters in question. In my previous books, characters range from their 20s to 40s, and Nights in Rodanthe was 40s and 50s. So I said I didn't want to do a novel with characters age 20 to 50, and said I could either do another teen story, which I hadn't done since A Walk to Remember, or a more mature story, since I hadn't done that since The Wedding or The Notebook. I was leaning toward a teenage story, and since A Walk to Remember was about a boy, I wanted to do one about a girl.

Coincidentally at that time, Offspring Entertainment called and said that Disney had a two-option movie deal with Miley Cyrus, who was currently doing Hannah Montana. She loved A Walk to Remember, and they asked if I had anything that Miley might be interested in, and I said 'no, but funny you should mention that.'

What was it like writing a screenplay and novel so close together? Which one did you write first?

I wrote the screenplay first, and it was easy. Screenplays are easy and I don't find them nearly as challenging as a novel. They're much, much shorter and are all about the story. The hard part is coming up with the story. Once you understand the screenplay structure, with three acts, plot points, and understand the mechanics, it's just writing. Then when I finished it, I sent it off two Disney, wrote two revisions and sat down to write the novel.

You’ve seen so many of your books turned into movies. What’s it like to see stories and characters you create on screen?

It's a lot of fun. I've been very fortunate that the movies have been good ones and very close to the spirit and integrity of the novel. They've also been well received at the box office.

What do you think about the state of literacy in this country?

My opinions are just that, my opinions, but I think that one of the goals in education in general, at least at the high school level, should be to encourage reading, whether fiction of non-fiction. I understand everyone reading common literature, but it is a narrow set of books written hundreds of years ago that students are supposed to read. I'm not sure those encourage the joys of reading. Schools would be well served to broaden their curriculum and allow students to read books by modern authors, classics that aren't on the curriculum yet, so to speak, to encourage reading in general. And that's best served by having students pick the kind of books they want to read.

Photo credit: Alice M. Arthur

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Attic with Jon Scieszka

Jon Scieszka, the author of kids' classics like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, is also an advocate for literacy and started Guys Read to get boys reading. He has two new books out, Truckery Rhymes and Robot Zot! Scieszka will be appearing Saturday at the National Book Festival, and based on his reading last year (in which I, and many of the other adults in the audience, were in tears), you shouldn't miss it.

You’ve been to the National Book Festival in 2002 and 2008. What’s the experience like, and how is it different from other book events?

I’ve been a couple times. It’s spectacular. It’s really amazing to see how it’s grown. I was at the very first one, and there were just kind of seven or eight of us from the kids’ book world on stage, and last year there were 150,000 people, parents and kids. Everyone has something they’re interested in, and that’s the great thing about it. There are cookbook authors for cooking fans, mystery writers for mystery fans. It’s grown to be a beautiful, crazy thing.

Last year you read from Knucklehead. What will you be reading from this year?

This year I have two new books, one is Truckery Rhymes, for a younger audience and a picture book called Robot Zot! and [illustrator] Dave Shannon's going to be there two, so he and I are going to do some kind of presentation.

You taught elementary school for a while. Did you write while teaching? If not, how did you make the leap?

I taught for 10 years, which was great training and background for everything I do. I ended up teaching every grade from first to eighth and it gave me a new understanding of how kids’ brains worked, since they’re different from adults’.

Then I went and got a Master’s in fiction from Columbia and I was writing adult short stories, funny fiction, and I was getting published nowhere. It took me a couple years to put it together. I was teaching second grade at the time, and a light bulb went off — here are students, second graders are funny. I wrote The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and took a year off to write kids’ books and get rejected.

What do you think about the way the country is going in terms of literacy? How can we encourage more people to read?

We’re on very shaky ground with literacy in general. But what’s even more frightening is the state of boys and reading. We’ve been testing kids for over 25 years now, at the national level every year, and we’re finding out that boys are doing worse than girls. We don’t do anything about it, but then just test them again next year. This mania for testing has adversely affected reading too… Boys in particular see reading as some kind of school thing.

There are a ton of good books out there, and if you can get a kid entranced by a book to start, they’ll read another book and another book. Non-fiction and humor are undervalued in schools, where I see adults taking away that book, saying ‘you can’t keep reading books about sharks and volcanoes.’ But I say, ‘maybe you can. Maybe you’re just a shark and volcano guy.’

What’s up next for you?

I’m working on a couple projects. One is to help kids understand media literacy. It’s called Space Headz, and it’s three about three aliens going to take over the world and they’re not too bright and end up taking over a fifth grade. One becomes a fifth grade boy, one becomes a fifth grade girl and one becomes the class hamster. There’s also going to be a web site, because the challenge is that Space Headz needs to sign up 3.14 million people to save the world, and it becomes an active experience. Fluffy the hamster is writing a blog, and you get the story from different parts and you have to decide what’s real and what’s not real.

I’m also working on an anthology called Guys Write for Guys Read, which will be a five volume set by genre. The first one is Guys Read humor, and will have a bunch of funny writers writing longer pieces. Ultimately we want to have kids who come to the library and say ‘I don’t have anything to read,’ and they can say, ‘check out our Guys Read library, there’s 12 funny stories in there, or 12 pieces of nonfiction.

Photo credit: Marty Umans

Wednesday Poem: Home to Roost, by Kay Ryan

Home to Roost

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

Kay Ryan is the Poet Laureate of the United States. To read more about Ryan, see my interview with her. She will be at the National Book Festival on the National Mall on September 26.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In the Attic with Sara Paretsky

Bestselling author Sara Paretsky's new book, Hardball, comes out today, and she'll be at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda tomorrow night at 7 p.m. to discuss it. It's the first VI Warshawski crime novel to come out in four years, and it is about the private investigator's search for a man who disappears during the riots.

I recently sat down and talked with Paretsky [for an article in the Washington Post Express] about her experiences as a community organizer in Chicago in the mid-1960s, which served as inspiration for Hardball, and how the city's politics influenced President Obama. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

How did your work as a community organizer influence this novel?

The summer of 1966 was a defining time in my life, since it was in the middle of a lot of social upheaval and the civil rights movement. The summer I came here happened to be the time that Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago to help local civil rights organizations try to combat inequality. Chicago has this horrible history of housing discrimination and job discrimination and that summer was really dynamic. It was a very violent time in the city.

I wrote a memoir ["Writing in an Age of Silence"] that was published two years ago that revisited that time and I realized that I needed to write more about it. So I put it into a novel about VI Warshawski and I have events that took place during some of the riots of that summer that come back and haunt people in the present day.

What was it like to relive that time?

There was a feeling of hopefulness [at that time], and thinking about that made me kind of sad. I felt the country was briefly experiencing a feeling of hope around the election of Obama, but for whatever reason we seem to be back to a pessimistic frame of mind as a nation. I thought it was just me, but I was just talking to a group of 30-year olds trying to work on health care and everyone seems to just feel bewildered and not hopeful. Going back to that time made me long for that sense of energy and possibility we used to have as a country.

Why do you think grassroots political work is still such a big part of Chicago politics?

Chicago is still very much a machine town. The players have changed, but corruption is still deep and wide in both the city and in Cook County, and I think without grassroots organizing, we're just sort of hopeless since it's very much a one-party town. It's very much a town in which things happen to benefit politicians and their friends and the community gets completely overlooked and things are allowed to disintegrate.

How do you think that environment affected President Obama?

Mr. Obama was my state senator, and I used to know him, so seeing him in the White House, I can't help thinking — that's my kid brother, what is he doing there?

But I hope what he understands from his years here is… that you if you can't engage people on the ground; the people at the top are going to run away with the show and ignore the ordinary person.

How is Hardball different from your other books?

It's more passionate, more deeply felt than a lot of my other novels. I'm under contract to write another novel in the series, which I'm working on, and it feels like I'm coming back and doing it mechanically after writing this so much from the heart.

What do you hope people take away from Hardball about that time in Chicago's history?

I hope that they first of all, enjoy it, since it's a story and it's meant to entertain people. I also hope that maybe people come away wanting to recapture that sense of hope and possibility that we used to have.

Photo credit: Steven E. Gross

Monday, September 21, 2009

In the Attic with Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo is the author of children's books, including Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Desperaux. Her new book, The Magician's Elephant, was released earlier this month. She will be appearing at the National Book Festival on Saturday.

You went to the National Book Festival in 2002. Have you been to any others? What was the experience like, and how is it different from other book events?

I went one other year [2004], so I’ve done it twice. Both times it just got a huge turnout and people are really passionate there. I felt a little like a rock star there which is kind of nice but also disconcerting.

Animals play such important roles in your stories. What are some differences between how you create animal characters versus human characters?

Sadly none at all. [laughs] Animals are just another character and they seem as real to me as the human ones, which reveals how psychologically disturbed I am. I never thought about that, but they’re the same as human characters.

Do you have a pet of your own?

I’m leaning on him right now. His name is Henry and his eyebrows just went up. He’s a poodle-terrier mix, a mutt.

You create such a wonderful sense of place in each of your books. What are some places that are particularly inspiring to you?

I was recently just in your neck of the woods. My aunt lives in Arlington and my brother and I visited her. Our mom passed away recently and we went to spread her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, and that will probably show up in something. It’s so gorgeous there. We went to where she grew up, which is like part of Annapolis, Bay Ridge. That was just great and I keep thinking about that.

Florida is always in the back of my mind, and the landscape here in Minneapolis, up north on the shore of Lake Superior is always in my head and my heart.

Where did the inspiration for The Magician’s Elephant come from?

I was in the lobby of a hotel in New York waiting to meet someone and an image of this desperate magician appeared before me. This was a magician who was third rate and wanted to perform real magic, so I got out my notebook to write a description of him. When I was reaching into my purse, I saw another notebook, one I was giving to someone as a gift that had an elephant on the cover. I went from the magician wanting to do real magic and an elephant appearing and it seemed like a story to me.

In what ways is this new book different from others you’ve written? Either the book itself or the process of writing it.

It just about killed me. It was so hard to write and Edward was the last novel and that kind of wrote itself. That doesn’t happen very often. But this was more like Desperaux, and I was so focused on all the different characters and I had all these different balls in the air, and I had no idea how it would work out. When I look back on writing it, it was a long rocky road.

I think your books are great for all ages and everyone can enjoy them, but how did you know you wanted to write books that end up in the children’s section versus books for adults?

Thank you for saying that! That’s my pie in the sky dream, that I can be a storyteller for everyone. It happened roughly when I moved to Minneapolis and I got a job in a book warehouse. I was assigned to the third floor with all the kids’ books. I went around picking books off the shelves and as a reader you’re bound to start reading what you’re picking up, and that’s what I did. I fell in love with what you could do with books for kids. The first novel I read that was written for kids was The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 and I thought I wanted to try to do something like that.

Did you always write?

I did, I started where most people start, which is short stories for adults, thinking that it’s shorter and therefore easier. I still occasionally write short stories for adults, and some have been in literary journeys, but it’s far more enjoyable writing for kids, and I think part of that is the potential for magic.

What do you think about the way the country is going in terms of literacy? How can we encourage more people to read?

I always came at it from my own bias, which is the power of story and I was one of those kids who felt like again and again what I got in the library saved me and it was stories that helped me understand the world I was in. When parents say ‘how can I make my kids read?’ I say, ‘Do they see you reading books for your own pleasure?’ I think that reading can sustain you for a lifetime and it helps you talk about your in the world and understand your place in the world and help you dream and that’s what I think reading should be.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Book Festival next weekend

The National Book Festival is next Saturday, and I'm getting pretty excited for it. Some of my favorite authors are going to be there, and I want to try to hit as many readings as I can.

To get you just as excited, next week I'll be featuring a week of author interviews. Three are from the National Book Festival, one is a bestselling author who has a new book coming out Tuesday and one is a food writer with a new book. So check back next Monday for the first interview, and hit the festival between 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. next Saturday.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wednesday Poem: Untitled by Mason Williams

This poem was sent in by Stefanie. To send in your favorite poem, e-mail:

The poem is untitled, but from Mason Williams' collection Flavors.

Stepping outside of her apartment
In the early morning stillness
I noticed how beautiful
The lines of a parking lot were

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Literary Baseball Shirts

How cute are these? Shirts for the first baseball "team" of literary stars (Novel-Ts) from the American canon are going to be for sale online soon, and you can get both authors (Poe, Hawthorne, Whitman) and characters (Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab, Tom Sawyer).

They have a last name on the back and an appropriate symbol (Ahab has a C for Captain, Whitman, a patch of grass) on the front. The shirts are available here next week, and if you live in New York, you can go to a launch party next Sunday. I seriously want one.

Via Paper Cuts.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Julie & Julia

It isn't often that I see a movie before I read the book it's based on. No, I'm one of those snobs who refuses to see a movie based on a book and then if I do, I tell everyone "it's okay, but the book is so much better." (I especially like to say that to people who don't know that a movie is based on a book.)

But when I saw Julie and Julia in late July, I hadn't read either the namesake book or Julia Child's book My Life in France. I loved the movie, which intertwined the two stories, and decided that I had to read them both. Since Julia's book came first and she was the inspiration for Julie's project, it made more sense to read hers first, but then library due dates messed that up, and I had to go with Julie's memoir first.

I read Julie and Julia in two sittings, and I think the best way to describe the book is "cooking chick lit." It's filled with sex and drinking and drama unrelated to Julie's project of cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but then of course, there are the substantive and informative parts devoted to Julie's pursuit of mastering French cuisine. Julie's writing is conversational, casual and messy — I write this way to get my ideas down on paper, but then clean it up — but it works for a project that's personal and creative. Julie cooks to save herself and give her life meaning, and judging by comments on her blog, Julie's readers are nearly as invested as she is. So while personal, it's also a universal and inspiring project, and the kind of endeavor that I want to come up with for myself.

Each section starts with an imagined letter about Julia's life in France, and after reading the first one, I skipped over the rest. The book is already cute, and this just wanders into the realm of too cute. I'm going to save voicing Julia's experience for Julia herself and I'm hoping to get to My Life in France very soon.

I know a lot of you have read the book and seen the movie — how do you think they compare?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Wednesday Poem: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, by William Wordsworth

This week kicks off the dedicated Wednesday Poem series, where I post readers' favorite poems. I'd also like to start putting up original poems, so to request one or send one of your own, e-mail:

This poem was sent in by Louise (also known as my mother).

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cover Candy: Couture Classics

Fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo recently gave couture-inspired makeovers to Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter. The covers were done in oil, watercolor or pencil. I really like these — my editions of these books are much more subdued, and I like having great books in beautiful covers that are clearly inspired by the text.

But sometimes cover updates are not okay, as with a Twilight-inspired edition of Wuthering Heights. While I'm glad more people might decide to pick up Emily Bronte's masterpiece, the publisher declaring it "Edward and Bella's Favorite Book" cheapens the text inside.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Gourmet Rhapsody

Last week at Barnes and Noble, I paused at the New Fiction table and was delighted to see that Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery, author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, was published in English in late August. I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Gourmet Rhapsody (which is actually her first book) is set in the same apartment building.

I had read The Elegance of the Hedgehog last winter and was seduced by its beautiful prose (the book is in translation) and its philosophical tenor. And I learned that Barbery has a way of describing food:
I am lost in contemplation of the masterpiece. The visual beauty of it is enough to take your breath away. I squeeze a little chunk of white and gray flesh between my clumsy chopsticks (that's plaice, elucidates Kakuro obligingly) and, determined to find ecstasy, raise it to my mouth.

Why do we go in search of eternity in the ether of invisible essences? This little whitish chunk is a far more tangible morsel thereof.
In Gourmet Rhapsody, the main character is Pierre Arthens, a food critic who has 48 hours to live. He is the greatest food critic in the world, and has both built and destroyed careers. With his last hours, he is determined to recapture a certain flavor, one that he tasted upon his tongue once in his life and has never forgotten. To do so, he revisits the most significant meals of his life — fish grilled on the shore, a feast served at a farm, sushi prepared by the best Japanese chef.

As with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, there are multiple narrators in Gourmet Rhapsody. But Barbery's choice of narrators here significantly complicates things. Beside Arthens, his tormented wife and neglected children weigh in, as do former lovers, and even his cat. As Arthens recalls the most wonderful moments of his life, everyone else remembers what a difficult person he is: "What do you think, old madman, what do you think? That if you find a lost flavor you will eradicate decades of misunderstanding and find yourself confronted with a truth that might redeem the aridity of your heart of stone?"

It's where Barbery is describing food that Gourmet Rhapsody shines, as with her description of a grilled sardine:
To say that the fish is delicate, that its taste is both subtle and expansive, that it stimulates the gums with a mixture of sharpness and sweetness; to say that the combination of the grilled skin's faint bitterness and the extreme smoothness of the firm, strong, harmonious flesh, filling one's mouth with a flavor from elsewhere, elevates the grilled sardine to the rank of culinary apotheosis, is at best like evoking the soporific virtues of opium. For what is at issue here is neither how delicate or sweet or strong or smooth the grilled sardine may be, but its wild nature.
Or a taste of whisky:
Like some ethereal marchioness, I cautiously ventured my lips into the peaty magma and… what a violent effect! An explosion of piquancy and seething elements suddenly detonates in my mouth; my organs no longer exist, no more palate or cheeks or saliva, only the ravaging sensation that some telluric warfare is raging inside me. In raptures, I allowed the first mouthful to linger for a moment on my tongue, while concentric undulations continued to engage it for a long while. That is the first way to drink whisky…
Gourmet Rhapsody could have been a completely charming and whimsical tale about love of food, but as expected, Barbery takes it to a philosophical level with the meditations on Arthens' character and his abuse of power. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is more effective as a social satire, but there's a lot to like here, not least of all the celebratory tone as Arthens finally identifies the taste he's after, and comes to see a sweetness in life.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How Many is Too Many? On Reading Multiple Books at the Same Time

I'm reading four books right now — Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery and Hardball by Sara Paretsky. I'm reading the first because we're in the last weeks of Infinite Summer; the second because it seems like everyone is reviewing it and I want to read it; the third because I loved her other book (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and because it just came out in the U.S.; and the fourth because I interviewed her this morning and needed to talk about it. They're four very different books, which means getting the plots mixed up is impossible. But what happened to the days of picking up one book, reading it, and then moving on to the next one?

Growing up I would occasionally read two books at once, but I think it was in college that I really started reading multiple books at a time. When you're studying literature, and you have to read more than one novel a week, you kind of have to be reading them all at once. But I also think in some ways my literary multi-tasking is related to the way our world is changing. Nowadays, we're expected to be able to balance an in-person conversation, keep up with two e-mail inboxes, and field phone calls that come in — all at the same time, thanks to new devices like the iPhone. While I'm in the camp that is flat-out refusing to have any hand-held device with the Internet, the expectation is there that we are able to do many things at a time. So while I may not be able to answer my e-mails and cook dinner at the same time, can I read a book for a review, along with a book for an interview, along with a book I'm reading for myself? Sure. I just did it this week.

But when you're reading multiple books it's easier for some of them to fall by the wayside. Every time a shiny new book comes into the D.C. Public Library with my name on it, Infinite Jest gets put down. Whenever I have to read a book for an interview or review, (two nights this week were devoted to reading Kate DiCamillo books), other things get set aside. And everything is going to get put down this weekend when I tackle the stack of New Yorkers, Food and Wines and Smithsonians that I've skimmed through but haven't read thoroughly yet.

I think this is okay, because even though I put books aside, I almost always go back to them. Sure there are books I don't finish, (I'm looking at you, Snow), but usually once I start a book, I have to see it through to the end. Maybe it's because so many of my writing projects linger unfinished for months or years, while finishing a book is much easier, less time consuming, and also gives me the satisfaction of completion that I need. At the same time I worry — is four books too many? Am I not giving them all the time they deserve? Is it really bad to put a book down for a long period of time before picking it back up? I don't know.

Does anyone else do this too?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Wednesday Poem: Song of Myself (section 52), by Walt Whitman

Song of Myself (section 52)

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

There's something about an epistolary novel that is just. so. charming. Set the book in 1946, just after World War II, set it in England, and you know you're going to end up with a pile of letters that filled with "yours ever[s]" and references to tea time and there will be the occasional telegram when other missives can't get there fast enough. It also means, when letters are the primary mode of communication between people, that they aren't in physical proximity to each other and that's going to fuel the plot.

While we can just dash off emails and text messages today, you realize the things that are lost when you read a book like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, newly out in paperback. In it, writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a man, Dawsey, who lives on Guernsey Island. He tells Juliet that the island was occupied by German soldiers during the war, and that no new books have been able to make their way there yet. He also tells her how some crafty islanders invented a literary society so they could circumvent the soldiers' rules and see each other after dark.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (named for a dessert made by a society member made with mashed potatoes for the filling, with strained beets for sweetener and peels for the crust) consists of a crop of eclectic and endearing characters — like Isola, who loves the Bronte sisters and "stories of passionate encounters, [though she has] never had one" to Eben, a fisherman. After Juliet begins to correspond with Dawsey, the other members of the society begin writing to her as well. We learn, though, that the quick-witted Elizabeth, who founded the society, was taken to a German concentration camp, and no one has heard from her since. She left behind a daughter, who the society members take turns caring for.

Society members quickly endear themselves to Juliet by telling her about their war time experiences, and she makes a trip to Guernsey. From then on, the book becomes predictable, but that's okay. The authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Shaffer died before extensive re-writes could be done, and her author niece Barrows stepped in to finish it), have provided a glimpse into the five year occupation of the Channel Islands, and they've developed some incomparable characters while doing so. It's the kind of book you want to read with a cup of tea in hand, and with its continual references to books, I can see this becoming a book club pick for years to come.